Double-edged Sword: Enduring Misconceptions About Bisexual Men

Stephon Reynolds who works as a performer in one of China’s first-tier cities is a unicorn. Aside from being the only Black man in a cast entirely comprised of White and Asian performers, he is also the only Bisexual person in the entire cast, to his knowledge. Along with the expected challenges that come with working as a Black person in such environments, Reynolds also has to contend with the fetishism that goes hand in hand with being Black, young, fit, and handsome in the Chinese dating market. But such attention, for him, and a plethora of negative experiences and unsolicited sexual attention comes from both the men and women at his workplace.

Whether it be a female co-star trying to lure him to her room, or a male co-star insinuating just how “big” Reynolds is, there is one common refrain he hears from both his male and female admirers – being Bi is almost like cheating, it’s being greedy, it’s essentially double-dipping. Oftentimes when it comes to conversations around men who identify as Bisexual, there is an overwhelming assumption that many are just Gay but don’t want to admit it, or are commitment-phobic and would sooner just play the field, as wide as it might be, until they ultimately grow tired, and inevitably end up with a man, further reinforcing the first stereotype.

“It means understanding that different kinds of oppression are interlinked, and that one can’t liberate only one group without the others. It means acknowledging kyriarchy and intersectionality – the fact that along different axes, we’re all both oppressed and oppressors, privileged and disprivileged.”
― Shiri Eisner, Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution

Old Hat

Though many contemporary societies have widely shunned sexual identities outside of the heteronormative binary, there was a long history of Bisexuality being practiced and widely accepted by civilizations around the world, including in China. “The “the passion of the cut sleeve,” which euphemistically refers to an intimate relationship between two men is derived from Emperor Ai who was the ruler of China in the latter BCE period. It is said that while taking a nap with his young male favorite, Dong Xian, in his palace in Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an) he awoke to find his young lover had also fallen asleep and was lying on the emperor’s sleeve. In order not to wake him, Emperor Ai cut off the sleeve of his robe as an act of tender love. It is also said that when word of this act of love spread throughout the court, the emperor’s leading courtiers also cut one of their sleeves as tribute.

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Ai was far from the only Chinese emperor to take male companions. In fact, it was common practice for the emperor to have a wife and a male companion. In his book Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China, historian Bret Hinsch goes into great detail about how prevalent the practice was, as recorded in  Records of the Grand Historian (the “Shiji”) and the Book of Han (the “Hanshu”). So pervasive and accepted was the practice that it endured well after Portuguese explorers had made contact with China. Vincent .E. Gil writes in The Journey of Sex Research that China had “a long history of dynastic homosexuality” before the cultural revolution, with “courtly love among rulers and subjects of the same sex being elevated to noble virtues.” And writings from the time period also indicate that “homosexuality was accepted by the royal courts and its custom widespread among the nobility.”

An illustration of Dong Xian and Emperor Ai depicting the story of Passion of the cut sleeve

Portuguese visitors to China were far from amused by what they found. Frier Gaspar de Cruz, in his Treatise of China in 1569 called it “a filthy abomination [that the Chinese] are so given to” while another Portuguese traveler to China by the name of Galeote Pereira wrote that “the greatest fault we do find is sodomy, a vice very common,” in his Reports of the Province of China. But while Western visitors to the region might have looked askance at the practice, Western leaders such as Alexader the Great and Roman emperor Nero were known to have had intimate relationships with both men and women

The Man, The Modern Myth

In an episode of Sex and the City, Sarah Jessica Parker’s character Carrie meets an attractive younger man who, much to her chagrin reveals he is Bisexual. When she shares this revelation with her girlfriends, Carrie declares Bisexuality to be “a layover on the way to Gaytown.” The statement is echoed later by Charlotte as played by Kristin Davis when she laments that all the Bi guys in College all ended up with men, to which Cynthia Nixon’s character retorts, “That’s why there are no more available men.” But is there any truth to this statement? Not according to Reynolds who paraphrases Carrie’s Bisexual boyfriend’s sentiments after she continually points out men asking him whether he finds them attractive, “Carrie, come on. Could you stop making this all about sex? It’s not. It’s about the person…”

But even Reynolds was boggled by a gentleman I met a few weeks ago on a night out who a friend tried feverishly to set me up with. Upon inquiring what his sexuality was – a rather attractive, muscular guy who now fits the “gym bunny” Gay stereotype – he responded that from the waist up he was Bisexual but from the waist down he was fully straight. “What?” Reynolds asked. And I sought to explain it with a club analogy – open to all sorts of clientele but has a velvet-rope section that serves a select clientele. Who this clientele is, depends solely on the establishment. This is hardly the first time I have personally encountered such men interwoven into the glitzy fabric of the Beijing nightlife, men who I call the “Kissing Bisexuals” who will make out with you but aren’t attracted to men beyond a momentary alcohol-fueled euphoric surge on a dancefloor in a smokey club.

In an Insider article titled 7 myths about bisexuality you need to stop believing, commonly-held beliefs about Bisexual people are debunked including one that they are far more prone to cheating, or in order to consider oneself authentically Bisexual, one has to have a 50/50 attraction to both sexes and the notion that Bisexuality doesn’t actually exist. To counter such a narrative and many misconceptions rooted in outmoded stereotypes, activist Robyn Ochs said “Here’s my current definition of bisexuality: I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge in myself the potential to be attracted, romantically and/or sexually, to people of more than one sex, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.”  

However succinct this definition is, questions still abound with regards to those who claim to have attractions to more than one gender in a binary outside of Pansexuality. In this week’s conversation, I explore just such questions with Reynolds and Raven, both of who are Beijing expats. Raven is an avid sci-fi reader, a budding author, and also someone who considers himself Bi-curious if not truly Bisexual.

Listen to the podcast on Spotify and Anchor here.

Photos: Unsplash, Wikimedia Commons

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